In this address I wish to explore something that has haunted me for years, which is the uncanny similarity between the epistemology and ontology of the “news story” in the newspaper and what we have come to call “contemporary legends”. This is in some ways a very old topic, after all, the topic of “newspaper folklore” is as old as the category of folklore itself, and both newspapers and folklore emerged in the 1850s. And many people have talked about the intersection of newspapers and folklore before, focusing in particular on how oral folklore, especially legends, get caught up and printed and recirculated as “news” in newspapers. So the first point is that newspapers become one alternate path for the circulation of folklore. Hence, clippings from newspapers have been a source of folkloric data from the very start. About 20 years ago, Jan Brunvand, who popularized “urban legends”, gave a keynote address on “Folklore in the News (and incidentally, on the net)”, where he explored both these points, which gives me my point of departure. My goal today is a little different. In addition to incorporation, where folklore becomes part and parcel of newspapers and other media, and “folkloresque” conscious imitation, in which items are printed in newspapers and other media that have the “odour” of folklore, there is a deeper connection. I’ll be arguing (in a North American newspaper context in the 19th century) that one kind of folkloric narrative, the legend, is an uncanny doppelganger of the epistemology and ontology of the news story in the newspaper: it is no accident that folkloric legends end up being reported as news, just as news stories, fake or not, in turn become part of oral folklore. They were born separately, but they have a natural affinity for one another, and this space of the hyphen between newspaper stories and legends is, I will argue, the folkloresque space of the “weird tale”.
Paul Manning is a linguist and linguistic anthropologist, much of his current work and teaching is on the semiotics of material culture. He is the author of three books (Strangers in a Strange Land, Academic Studies press, 2012; Semiotics of Drinks and Drinking Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2012; and Love Stories, University of Toronto Press, 2015). His primary ethnographic field site is the country of Georgia, but he has also worked in Wales and Argentina on Welsh-speaking populations. He has written on the “spectral migrations” of various kinds of folkloric monsters in time and space, from Georgian goblins migrating into cities, and Cornish Pixies and Cornish Transatlantic mining spirits called Tommyknockers, to North American ghosts and Spiritualist seances. He is currently working on a long-term ethnographic project on the semiotics of gardens and urban space in the country of Georgia.
Scholarly attempts to define internet memes are various. From a cultural perspective, internet memes are a form of communication and the term ”meme” is an emic term, which derives from – but is not identical with – that of the meme theory. Thus, Internet memes are subject to the agency of the individuals and groups that create and use them. Similarly to any folklore, they may have symbolic value to group identity and give rise to disputes upon ownership. In addition to social meanings, I approach internet memes as material artifacts in a virtual environment. They are not just ideas but concrete visual images consisting of bits and pieces, and their existence, development, and distribution depends on technological devices and software. Current discussions on digital materiality highlight the agency of technology in digital cultures. Technology not only makes it possible to create and distribute digital cultural artifacts but its affordances also affect vernacular creativity: freely available software tools and platforms often shape the end product of meme makers. Consequently, we can define vernacular meme making as cooperation between the creative individual, the ongoing tradition in the community, and technology. Meme cultures, especially the internet ugly aesthetics, constantly comment upon the role of technology in meme production.
Kaarina Koski is a Finnish folklorist whose research interests include old and new belief traditions, legends and belief narratives, death cultures, uncanny experiences, internet cultures and all sorts of vernacular discourses. Koski has worked as a university lecturer of folkloristics at the University of Turku and recently as a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki.